The First World War was truly global in where conflicts occurred, over 110 areas saw fighting of some kind during the 1914-19 period.

One of the first shots to be fired in August 1914 was fired in Melbourne harbour on August 04. Hours after war was declared, Bombardier John Purdue fired a warning shot across the bows of the German cargo ship, SS Pfalz as it attempted to leave Australian Waters.

Depriving one’s enemy of intelligence, especially movements of naval vessels during the war, was of paramount importance. New Zealand mounted an attack/invasion of German held Samoa in August 1914 to prevent the island being used in this way. The Australian government followed this by an attack on the radio relay station (known to be used by the German East Asiatic Squadron) in German held New Guinea (German New Guinea was comprised of North Eastern New Guinea and a nearby group of islands). This was to become known as the ‘Battle of Bita Paka’.500 men, protected by a cruiser and several destroyers, landed on September 11in the bay on the north-east of the island of Neu Pommern and advanced inland through dense jungle. They soon came under fire from well concealed German troops including snipers, and suffered the first Australian casualty of the war. After reinforcements reached them, the advance continued until they reached a trench dug across the road. The officer leading the attack charged the trench wielding his sword. He became one of the seven Australian casualties in the attack. Eventually the Australians reached the radio station which had been abandoned.

In West Africa the German Empire established a protectorate over Togoland (between the British held Gold Coast and the French held Dahomey), an area the size of Ireland. By August 05, the German undersea cables between Monrovia (Liberia) and Tenerife, the only link between Germany and Togoland, had been cut and the proposal of neutrality for Togoland had been refused. British troops in Accra (Gold Coast) and French troops in Dahomey agreed to invade Togoland and disable the radio station at Kahima, about 60 miles inland from the coast. After occupying Lomé (on the coast), soldiers of the West African Rifles advanced together with French led Senegalese Trirailleurs.  They encountered and defeated German troops, who had come south along the railway, at Tsewie (August 15), but were delayed further at Khra where German troops had destroyed bridges and mined roads. The delay was long enough for the Germans to destroy the wireless station, radio towers and equipment. The deputy governor then surrendered the colony to the Allies.

In East Africa, the attack on German East Africa did not proceed as planned. A force of British and Indian troops was unsuccessful in attacking Tanga in November. The British forces were defeated by a significantly smaller force of German Askaris and volunteers led by Lt-Colonel von Lettow–Vorbeck. Tanga is situated about 50 miles from the border of British East Africa and was a busy port and the ocean terminus of the railway. The initial plan included an amphibious attack using a cruiser, HMS Fox, and a convoy of troop transports. The German troops and citizens of Tanga had ample time to prepare for the attack. By the evening of November 03, about 4,000 Indian troops were ashore. The following day they advanced on the city. Well concealed defenders broke up the advance. Eventually Indian troops did enter the town. Unfortunately, the Indian troops disturbed the hives of wild African bees in the plantations. This led to panic amongst the Indian troops. Von Lettow-Vorbeck summoned his last reserves bringing the number of German troops to about 1,000. As the bees attacked both German and Indian troops, there was a lull in the fighting. Eventually the Indian troops were withdrawn and evacuated back onto their transports leaving nearly all their equipment behind. Von Lettow-Vorbeck was able to re-arm his troops with modern rifles and ample ammunition. The Indian army suffered over 1,000 casualties, the German troops & volunteers less than 150.

In the late 19th century, Germany had been able to establish a base for the German East Asiatic Squadron on the Chinese mainland at the port of Tsingtau in Shandong province at the mouth of the Yellow River, which flows into the East China sea about midway between Beijing and Shanghai. In 1902 the Anglo-Japanese Alliance had been sealed by a treaty. After war was declared in August 1914, Britain requested Japanese assistance in neutralising German strongholds in Chinese waters. On August 23, Japan declared war on Germany and demanded than the port of Tsingtau be surrendered to Japanese control. The siege of Tsingtau was led by General Kamio Mitsuomi, with over 20,000 troops, assisted by a naval squadron under Admiral Sadakichi Kato. The defence of Tsingtau was led by Admiral Alfred Waldeck with under 4,000 troops. The British sent a contingent of about 1,500 men (South Wales Borderers and a Singh battalion) under the command of Brig-General Barnardiston to aid the Japanese attack. Following a ‘friendly fire’ incident, the British troops were given Japanese army raincoats to wear.  The siege lasted from August 27 until November 07. Both sides used airpower to aid their side. The Japanese launched Maurice Farman seaplanes to drop bombs on German positions, and the German defence utilised a single Taube aircraft for reconnaissance. The pilot of the Taube claimed later to have ‘brought down’ a Farman with a pistol. If true, it was the first aerial victory of WW1.The German garrison held out for 2 months, despite the blockade anda consistent artillery bombardment. Only when the ammunition for these heavy guns had run out did the garrison surrender after continuous waves of infantry attacks, The German garrison suffered over 700 casualties, the British 65 and the Japanese just under 2,000. The German POWs were only repatriated in 1920. 

When war was declared in August 1914, German Zeppelin airships were perceived as a significant threat. They were able to climb faster than conventional aircraft and carry a payload of bombs far greater than any aeroplane. The Government took the decision to attack the bases from which the airships departed. This task was given to the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) as the RFC were involved in observation & reconnaissance, which involved slower moving aeroplanes. The first raids on Dusseldorf and Cologne were unsuccessful so the decision was taken to attack the base at Friedrichshafen, on the north east coast of Lake Constance where the borders of Germany, Austria and Switzerland meet. With Austria and Germany being allies, and Switzerland neutral, Friedrichshafen could only be approached from France to the west. The nearest convenient base from which to launch the attack was an airship station at Belfort in eastern France. Belfort is 125 miles from Friedrichshafen, 50 miles west of the German border and 12 miles north of Switzerland. After protracted negotiations, the French eventually agreed to its use for the operation, but insisted the raid be mounted in complete secrecy and within one month. Belfort, being an airship station, had no runway, so the aircraft would have to be crated and transported by train. This also preserved secrecy, as the arrival of four aircraft loaded with bombs would not have gone unnoticed. The reconnaissance and planning for the operation were entrusted to Noel Pemberton-Billing, a British aviator and inventor who was given a temporary commission in the RNVR as a Flight Lieutenant. Pemberton-Billing drove from England to Belfort (3 days) before inspecting both the sheds and travelling to Switzerland to view Friedrichshafen from across the lake. Having formulated a plan, he returned to England for approval and to arrange for the aircraft (Avro 504s with a four-hour endurance when the second seat was replaced by an extra fuel tank) to be crated up and then transported to Belfort by train along with eleven men. On arrival the crates were transfered to an airship shed and the planes were assembled and newly designed bomb racks fitted. This took two days and during this time no one was allowed outside of the shed. There was no runway at Belfort, so rough land had to be cleared for the planes to be tested. On the first taxiing trial, one of the planes damaged its undercarriage. As there was a shortage of spare parts, it was decided that the maiden flight of the aeroplanes would be the attack itself.  When Squadron Commander Sheppard fell ill, the command of the operation fell to Squadron Commander Briggs and Lt-Commander Roland Cannon took Sheppard’s place.

Problems increased as the pilots had never released bombs while flying before and the French authorities refused to release any maps to the British, as any one captured would-be carrying evidence that they had flown from France. As a result, the pilots had to memorize the route before take-off. The weather improved and the decision to go was made on November 21. Of the four aircraft which attempted to take-off, the damaged plane piloted by Cannon was unable to unable to get airborne, as a result only three departed for their bombing mission. Flying in formation was impossible as the pilots were not able to adjust the speed of the planes, and instead of a combined attack, it developed into three individual attacks. Briggs was the first to arrive, he dropped his bombs but was hit by anti-aircraft fire and landed in front of the sheds he had just bombed and was taken prisoner. The second pilot, Flight Lieutenant Sippe (a veteran of the Dusseldorf and Cologne bombing) flew to the sheds at Friedrichshafen at ten feet above the water level of Lake Constance. He dropped his first bomb on the anti-aircraft battery and the next two on the sheds. The fourth bomb failed to be released and Sippe flew back over the Lake still with it in his rack. The third pilot to arrive, Flight Commander Babington attempted to bomb the sheds by arriving with the sun behind him. He lost his way on the return journey and landed in France to ask for directions. The farmer who found him arranged a phone call to Belfort and arranged to be picked up. The RNAS group left for England the following day. Despite the exaggerated news about extensive damage to the Zeppelin sheds (very little damage had been caused), the bombing raid was seen as a success in propaganda terms.The pilots were each awarded the DSO and French Legion d’Honneur.

After the raid the German defences at Friedrichshafen were enhanced and an additional Zeppelin factory was constructed at Potsdam well beyond the range of bombers. In spite of the minimal damage caused, the enterprise, undertaken by the RNAS within months of the war starting, with pilots flying planes they were unaccustomed to, from an airport without a runway, without maps and releasing bombs from home made racks, can only be admired.

Report by Peter Palmer